I have written many posts about my German great-great-grandmother Mary Miller and her daughter Tillie. The fact that I even had German ancestry was one of my first big genealogical discoveries. No one in my family ever mentioned that my mother’s grandmother – who lived into the 1950s at least – was a German immigrant.
Figuring out basic questions about Mary and Tillie Miller has been a huge challenge. When were they born? Where in Germany did they come from? When and why did they emigrate? What happened to Mr. Miller? The best places to look for that information are in marriage certificates, immigration records or naturalization papers. But I couldn’t find any of those.
I first looked for marriage records. I knew from census returns that Tillie Miller married my great-grandfather Jacob Sylvester Agin some time around 1892. But a search through archives in New York and New Jersey turned up nothing. I was informed to my chagrin that ministers didn’t always file marriage certificates with the state, particularly in New Jersey.
I also came across a fascinating collection of newspaper articles documenting Mary’s scandalous third marriage to William Vannote, a famous “woman hater.” Their October 17, 1903 union was covered as a human interest story in papers from coast to coast. But again, even with the actual date and location of the ceremony, I could not find a marriage record in the New Jersey archive. The articles mentioned a second husband, a George Hendrick or possibly a Gus Hendrock, whom she divorced. But I didn’t know where to begin to look for their marriage record.
I searched in vain through immigration records online, but with a common name like Miller (or the more German Müller) and a vague date of some time in the 1880s, I had no luck. And I checked to see if there was a naturalization file in the National Archives, but it turns out that before 1906 women were usually naturalized automatically based on their husbands’ citizenship.
The only document I did find was Mary’s 1924 death certificate. It gave her place of birth as “Collenz, Germany.” I thought it might be Coblenz, an old spelling for the city of Koblenz in southwest Germany. Not much to go on.
After hitting all these brick walls, I focused on tracking down records from Mary’s divorce. Some quick research revealed that divorces in New Jersey during that time were handled by the Chancery Court in Trenton. I saw online that the New Jersey state archives had an index of chancery court actions on microfilm. So I traveled down to Trenton to take a look. And it didn’t take me more than ten minutes to find a 1903 case entitled Gustav A. Handrock v. Mary Handrock, case file no. F-39, page 438. This had to be it!
They had to take the file out of deep storage so I couldn’t see it that day. So I ordered copies that took a couple of weeks to arrive by mail.
The case file is 18 pages in total: a handwritten petition for divorce with statements by Gustav and two witnesses; a summons served on Mary (apparently unanswered); the court’s order granting a divorce on the grounds of desertion; and an assessment of costs. It provides a ton of amazing detail about Mary’s second marriage (albeit from the husband’s side). It deserves its own post, which will come soon.
From Gustav’s statement, I learned that he and Mary married in a boarding house in Manhattan on September 24, 1887. A quick look at an invaluable online index of New York City marriages showed that there is a marriage record in the New York City archive for Gustav Handrock and Marie Müller (certificate no. 74373) with the same date.
It was a busy week at work but I finally got down to the archive on Friday to get a copy of that marriage certificate. It answers many old questions – even as it presents one more vexing puzzle.
There are two separate pages, one landscape and one vertical. On the “Certificate of Marriage,” we see that the couple was married by a Rev. C.H. Ebert of the Reformed Emigrant Mission, located at 50 New Street in lower Manhattan, just south of Wall Street. I googled Ebert and learned he appointed by the Reformed Church in 1884 as “harbor missionary at the Port of New York to labor among the immigrants arriving at our shores, especially the Germans.”
We also see that Tillie, then 14 years old, was one of the witnesses – and that her name was Ottilie, not Mathilde as I had previously assumed.
On the “Return of a Marriage,” there is a lot of new information (and some new questions):
- We learn that my great-great-grandmother’s maiden name was Marie Roeder.
- She said her age was 35 at the time of the marriage. If accurate, that would mean she was born in 1851 or 1852. Gustav was six years younger.
- We know that Marie’s parents were Franz and Marie Roeder. That means I can now name 22 of my 32 third great-grandparents! The form asked for the mother’s maiden name. Could it have also been Roeder? Or was this just an error? Probably the latter.
- We have confirmation that this was Marie’s second marriage. The old newspaper articles say she was widowed in Germany, but I did wonder whether she might have been an unwed mother. Knowing that her maiden name was Roeder resolves that once and for all.
The most interesting detail from the Return of Marriage is found on line 11. For Marie’s place of residence, it says “arr’ by S.S. Wieland from Germany.” With this information, I did a search on ancestry.com and found the immigration records at long last. Intriguingly, Marie and Ottilie Muller arrived in New York on September 23, 1887 – one day before the marriage ceremony!
I looked for Gustav’s immigration records and learned he traveled to America in 1881 – and then again in 1886. It’s not clear how much time he spent back in Germany, but the 1886 immigration records (passenger lists from Hamburg and New York) indicate his home was Rocky Hill, N.J., a small town near Princeton. And the marriage record lists his home as Princeton, where he worked as a farmer.
So how to explain this quickie ceremony by a missionary in a New York City boarding house with no other friends or family present? I suspect that Gustav returned to Germany to find a wife. He found the newly widowed Marie, who needed a husband. So Gustav returned to the States and earned money to bring Marie and Ottilie over a year later. Gustav was probably not a man of means, so maybe a quick private ceremony suited his needs. Or maybe he had no friends or family back home in Rocky Hill to invite to a proper wedding.
On top these fantastic new discoveries, I hoped the marriage record would finally point me to the town Marie and Ottilie came from – the key to tracing the family line back further. But once again I’m stuck. The Return of a Marriage indicates that Marie’s place of birth was “Schenewanz, Schlesien, Prussia.” Schlesien is the German word for Silesia, a part of Germany that became Polish territory after World War II. It’s nowhere near Koblenz, which is too bad because it sounds like a beautiful city.
But my searches online to find Schenewanz have turned up nothing. The spelling seems odd so I tried many variations with no luck. So frustrating! The rest of the form is meticulously filled out, probably by Rev. Ebert. The German names are all correctly rendered. So why would the town name be wrong?
Gustav’s place of birth is listed as Naumburg, Prussia. There is a fairly large city by that name in modern day Sachsen-Anhalt, which I’m told is very nice. But Bob Behnen, a very helpful guy who answered my post an a genealogy message board, has pointed me toward two small towns called Naumburg in old German Silesia, especially Naumburg am Bober. So if my theory is correct that Gustav and Marie lived in the same area and agreed to marry when she arrived in America, then I need to find a town that sounds like Schenewanz near Naumburg-am-Bober.
Hopefully, I’ll solve this mystery and identify my German ancestral hometown with certainty. Still, I feel pretty good about all I have learned about my German roots in a few days’ time. More posts on this to come.